A Mighty Wind
The future lies in clean energy—so after this year's legislative session, how well are we keeping up?
By Christie Chisholm
Yippee! The legislative session is finally over. That whirlwind of politics that marks the coming of spring every year has wound down, and as the days get longer and the breeze just a little bit sweeter, we can all be thankful that we don't have to do it again until next year. But what actually happened up there in the Roundhouse? Will it benefit New Mexico? Will it benefit you? And, perhaps most important of all, will it move us forward?
Possibly one of the more pressing issues for our state this year was in the realm of clean energy, which Gov. Bill Richardson has made a point of putting at the top of his agenda. Clean energy is important for our state, partially because we get hefty doses of sunshine and wind (not to mention other resources that make for good renewable energy), and partially because we have a lot of space to take advantage of said sunshine and wind. If we move forward wisely, and we move forward quickly, we can also take advantage of the fact that over the next couple decades the country will slowly be incorporating more and more renewable energy into the mainstream, and maybe New Mexico can finally get on top of the good list.
Gov. Richardson knows this, which is why last year he put together six special task forces with a mission to concentrate on clean energy, and gave them the assignment of putting down recommendations for this year's fresh batch of bills. The task forces were fairly successful, laying out a number of initiatives that added up to the governor's Clean Energy Package, most of which fared well in the Legislature.
And so when we look at the outcome of the last couple months, we are presented with a picture that fairly well mimics the general state of progress, and is a pretty good gauge for how well we're keeping up with the times: There's the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly (hey, it's politics—what else would it be?). Well, here's at least a look at the good and the bad.
Two Steps Forward
Last month, New Mexico was celebrating. Although there's plenty to rejoice over here, this particular occasion was the direct result of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a brand spanking new biomass project at the Jemez Mountain School in Rio Arriba County. The project, which is the first of a series of similar clean energy projects soon to be completed around the state, was to build a clean-burning boiler that ran on wood chips taken from forest-thinning efforts in the area. The chips, which were previously either taken to the local landfill or burned (not so great for air quality), are now being recycled and used to heat a school that, just a short time ago, was run completely on propane. The new alternative not only keeps the school nice and toasty, it's also incredibly clean. In fact, a semi-trailer full of chips only generates a 10 to 15 gallon bucket of ash, and the system produces so little air pollution that it doesn't even require a permit from the Environment Department. It is also the first such project in the state to ever be completed.
The funding for projects such as this was the focus of one of the governor's initiatives this session, which was an upgrade to the Clean Energy Grants that were approved last year. The purpose of the grants is to fund clean energy projects throughout the state that are proposed by public entities (such as tribes, public schools, universities, state agencies, county and city governments, and so on). These projects range from using methane at the Los Angeles landfill in Albuquerque to generate electricity, to supplying the village of Angel Fire with enough money to buy a 6 kilowatt photovoltaic tracking system that will move with the sun. Last year, when the grant money was approved by the Legislature with a budget of $1 million, the state received over $4.3 million worth of requests, says Christopher Wentz, director of the Energy Conservation and Management Division with the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD). This year, that limit has been increased to $3 million.
Another one of the governor's initiatives that passed was the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Bonding Act (HB32). Thanks to this bill, the state is now allowed to sell bonds to state, tribal and public school facilities that will allow them to make energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades. They'll then be able to pay back the bonds through the savings they make off their utility bills. Although other cities around the country have approved this sort of funding scheme before, we are the first state in the nation to take it on.
The Efficient Use of Energy Act (SB644) was also a success in the Legislature, which requires electric and gas utilities to implement cost-effective energy efficiency programs. Such programs are aimed at helping both residential and business sectors and can range from helping folks get energy efficient appliances and light bulbs to providing insulation upgrades. Ben Luce, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy (CCAE), says that such programs have been very successful in other states, and hopes that many of our new programs will be developed to assist lower income areas. Now that this bill has passed, utilities are already starting to formulate plans for these programs, and Luce says that at least some will likely be underway by the end of the year.
The Natural Resource Conservation Bids (HB720) was the last clean energy bill approved. This bill aims at making it easier for public entities to upgrade the energy efficiency of their buildings. This is done by lessening the requirements needed for contractors to enter into contracts with state agencies for energy efficiency upgrades.
A few years ago, the state passed a law that allowed contractors to take the financial risk when upgrading buildings in terms of energy efficiency. This means that when a contractor began a project, instead of getting paid up front, they were willing to be paid through the utility savings from the upgrades they made. The problem was, there were all sorts of hoops that they had to jump through to have the proper "insurance" to do this, which didn't make sense because they were taking the risk, not the customer. Because of this, not many contractors were opting to go this route. But HB720 makes it easier for contractors, which will hopefully increase the number of energy efficiency upgrades in the state.
One Step Back
Despite the overall success of the session, there were several bills that did not make the cut. One such bill was the Solar Thermal Systems Tax Credit Act (SB344). This bill would have provided tax refunds for people who installed photovoltaic systems, giving a refund of $3.50 per watt of rated peak hour output, which means that for a 1 kilowatt system someone could get $3,500 back from the state. For commercial users, the case would have been similar, providing them with $1.50 per watt (less because businesses already receive tax credits from the government). The bill also would have returned 15 percent of the cost of solar heating systems back to the customer.
Two other bills that took a beating this year were the net metering bills, SB1006 and HB200. Net metering refers to the ability to "sell" power back to the utility company when your renewable energy system is producing more energy than it uses. The purpose of these bills was to increase the size of systems that are allowed to net meter from 10 kilowatts (the system you see at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center) to 100 kilowatts. This would have meant that more folks could take advantage of the program.
However, it seems like strange dealings were happening in the Legislature this year, and even though both bills likely could have made it through, they were tied up by folks adding and subtracting amendments from them. Ultimately, HB200 didn't make it through for lack of time and SB1006 did make it through, but with a bad amendment that would lower the amount of money that people could get back for their power; it isn't likely to be signed by the governor. Other bills that failed this time around for lack of time were the Renewable Energy Transmission and Storage Acts (SB627 and HB748), which would have expanded and made improvements to renewable energy infrastructure in the state.
These bills died, but don't fret, they're likely to come back to life next year, says Ned Farquhar, the governor's energy advisor. Farquhar also says that the governor is happy with what passed this year and believes that it is a positive and firm step toward his goal of making us the "clean energy state."
He's probably correct. It seems that nearly everyone involved is also fairly pleased with this year's outcome. The state energy department's Wentz, for instance, says that he is excited that state has made progress. "It's just very encouraging to see that New Mexico is recognizing its potential in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and effectively pursuing the goals that the governor and the legislators have set," he said.
But not everyone is completely satisfied. Luce, although happy about the bills that passed, says that awareness still needs to be raised among the general public on the need for clean energy. "Even with a governor who's very supportive, it's still a challenging thing to get these bills through," he said, "We really need to make our legislators know that we want this, (because) a lot of good bills die due to politics."
In terms of moving forward, it seems that we are, despite the fact that we still have to wade through the ugly mire of politics to upgrade our energy system, making it cleaner and more affordable.
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